Saturday’s byelection for the New South Wales state seat of Orange might not loom terribly large among the global electoral convulsions that have characterised 2016, but it certainly marks a significant moment in the increasingly troubled life of Mike Baird’s government, and it is not without resonance of the anti-establishment backlash unfolding internationally.
Centred around the rural centres of Orange, Parkes and Forbes about 250 kilometres west of Sydney, the seat is classic Nationals heartland, and has been held by the party without interruption since 1947.
Andrew Gee, who precipitated the byelection with his move to federal politics in July, managed 65.6% of the primary vote when the state election was held in March last year, making Orange the 14th safest out of the Coalition’s 54 seats.
The Nationals weren’t even able to manage half that on Saturday, leaving candidate Scott Barrett running second in a tight tussle with Philip Donato of Shooters, Fishers and Farmers.
The failure has imperilled party leader Troy Grant, who faces a leadership spill when the party room meets tomorrow, with front-benchers John Barilaro and Niall Blair mentioned as possible replacements.
The biggest weights in the Nationals’ saddlebag on Saturday were the government’s recently jettisoned shutdown of the state’s greyhound racing industry and plans for forced council amalgamations, which will cause Orange City Council to merge with the neighbouring shires of Cabonne and Blayney.
The first of these is an issue that slices through the emerging electoral cleavage of our age, in which the progressivism of the big cities is pitted against the traditionalism of rural and regional areas.
Grant was fully exposed to the backlash by virtue of his position as Racing Minister, and there were reports well before the byelection that the party room rebellion he faced might prove serious enough to cost him his job.
The second issue springs from a source of the new populism that tends to get glossed over by the Brexit and Donald Trump enthusiasts in the broadsheet conservative press, namely its rejection of the cost-cutting, service-withdrawing orthodoxies of free-market economics.
The impact of the council amalgamation issue on the result can hardly be doubted, given the disparity between results at the eastern end of the electorate compared with those in the shires of Parkes and Forbes to the west, which stand to be undisturbed under the proposed reforms.
The Nationals polled 65% of the primary vote at both ends of the electorate last year, but their vote on Saturday collapsed to an only moderately disastrous 38% in Parkes and Forbes, while heading all the way south to 26% in Orange and Cabonne.
None of this was any use to a success-starved ALP, which had eagerly viewed the byelection as an opportunity to gain momentum from the heavy anti-government swing that everyone saw coming.
Instead, Labor’s primary vote has fallen five points to 18.4% — a disastrous showing for an opposition at a midterm byelection.
Luckily for Labor leader Luke Foley, the waters were muddied by two other byelections held on Saturday, at which Labor went largely untroubled in defending its safe seats of Canterbury and Wollongong.
The advantage from the Nationals’ woes in Orange instead accrued to Shooters, Fishers and Farmers, a party that has been quietly on the march for a few years now, having broken out of its redoubt in the New South Wales Legislative Council to win seats at the most recent state elections in Victoria and Western Australia.
Its cause was boosted by the efforts of talk radio behemoths Alan Jones and Ray Hadley, who took their programs to Orange last week to underscore their joint crusade against council mergers, and treated listeners to sympathetic interviews with Donato.
But for most of the nearly one-quarter of Orange voters who threw their lot in with Donato on Saturday, it’s clear he was essentially a target of opportunity for expressing a negative, anti-major party sentiment.
While the result is startling enough in its own right, the headlines could have been quite a bit bigger if the electorate’s seething discontent had instead been harnessed by One Nation.
However, the party was unable to take advantage of the situation as it is not formally registered at state level.
It’s the same story in Western Australia, where $10 memberships are being advertised in a bid to get the 500 members that will be needed if it is to contest the March 11 state election.
With the state’s electoral commission advising that applications take up to three months to process, and the party’s energies diverted of late by the Rod Culleton saga, time is fast running out.
Voter discontent in Australia may not quite be at the pitch evident in Britain and the United States, but the Orange result demonstrates that the havoc wrought by One Nation of late could potentially prove to have been the tip of the iceberg — but only if it can get its act together.